Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth is Richard Wright's autobiographical account of his life beginning with his earliest memories and ending with his departure for the North at age nineteen. In Black Boy, Wright tells of an unsettled family life that takes him from Natchez, Mississippi, to Memphis, Tennessee, back to Jackson, Mississippi, then to Arkansas, back again to Mississippi, and finally to Memphis once more, where he prepares for his eventual migration to Chicago.
Most readers agree that Black Boy is a highly selective account, more selective than the term "record" in its subtitle suggests. At the time Wright wrote Black Boy, he was already an accomplished author of fiction. He had published a collection of short stories called Uncle Tom's Children and the highly successful novel Native Son. Wright chose carefully the experiences he includes in Black Boy, the ones he highlights, and the tone in which he writes about them. Many readers even think that he invents some of the incidents. Most agree, however, that Wright crafts his autobiography for the precise impact he wants.
THE CHARACTERS - CHARACTER LIST AND ANALYSIS
Of course, the central character of Black Boy is young Richard Wright. To distinguish between this young character and the author looking back on him many years later and even occasionally inventing incidents about him, this guide follows the standard practice of referring to the former as "Richard" and the latter as "Wright." Wright presents Richard as a rebellious youth. Usually hungry and malnourished, he loves to retreat into the imaginary world of the novels he reads. Richard refuses to accept the strict religion of his grandmother and even rejects his mother's more moderate religious faith. As he gets older, he also stands up to the discipline his aunts and uncles impose on him and threatens to retaliate with physical violence. Later, the feisty, independent spirit Richard develops at home leads him to refuse to accept the codes of behavior the white world has set for Southern blacks. And when Richard finally decides to become a writer, that career represents a declaration of independence from those in the black community who ridiculed his ambitions and a declaration of war on the white racists who have oppressed him.
In the early chapters of Black Boy, the other important characters are the members of Richard's family. Richard's female relatives are more significant in his life than the males. His mother often disciplines him harshly, but the discipline clearly stems from her love. Abandoned by her husband and unable to establish economic independence from her strict mother, she suffers greatly. Her misery is increased by a stroke that ruins her health. Young Richard misses her during her illness and is deeply moved by her pain. .
Richard gets along well with his Aunt Maggie, who, like his mother, is trying hard not to be dependent on Richard's grandmother. But he clashes angrily with his Aunt Addie, a strict Sunday School instructor who is determined to break Richard's independent spirit. He also has a difficult relationship with Granny, a deeply religious woman who seems to be genuinely worried about the state of Richard's soul. She is always ready to aid a family member in need, and she takes in Richard and his mother during Mrs. Wright's illness. But her conception of Richard's welfare does not consider his happiness an important issue. Much of Richard's rebellious spirit seems to develop from his struggle against Granny's rules.
On the other hand, Richard's father is important primarily for abandoning him and his mother and thus causing much of their deprivation. He seems to be a simple and somewhat selfish man with little interest in the effect of his behavior on his family. Three uncles also play a role in young Richard's life. Uncle Hoskins is a successful businessman willing to defy the whites who threaten him. He is generous with Richard and his mother, and his violent death is Richard's first brutal lesson in racism. Uncle Clark is another of the more prosperous members of the family. While he is quite willing to help Richard by feeding, clothing, and housing him, he is cool and unaffectionate and shows no understanding of Richard's fears and emotional needs. Uncle Tom, though, is one of the less successful uncles. Forced by his difficult financial situation to return to Granny's, Tom's insistence on becoming a disciplinarian to Richard seems to stem from his own sense of failure and humiliation. Richard's younger brother, Leon, doesn't seem very important in Richard's life. He doesn't share Richard's rebellious spirit and goes to live with Aunt Maggie after Mrs. Wright's illness.
Later in Black Boy, several other characters become significant. The principal of Richard's school tries to force Richard to abandon a speech the young man has written himself and to read the principal's speech instead. The principal sees himself as a successful black man who is only trying to help Richard escape the poverty to which he seems destined. But Richard considers the principal a failure because he does not challenge the codes of behavior that whites have set for blacks. Pease and Reynolds are two white optical workers who are quite friendly to Richard as long as he keeps his place and shows no interest in bettering himself. But they respond with vicious terror when he shows some interest in learning their skills. Shorty is an intelligent black worker who is willing to play the clown for the entertainment of whites. He thinks he is putting something over on the whites by making them believe he is a buffoon, and he is proud of his ability to get the whites to give him money. At times, however, he reveals his discouragement with the undignified way he is forced to live.